Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History
  • .: Phil Magness’ Blog :.

    Personal blog of Dr. Phil Magness, historian of the American Civil War and the 19th Century United States. Here I will post my thoughts and commentary on current research topics, upcoming events, and the general state of academia.
  • September 2017
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  • A Tale of Two Newspapers

    Posted By on September 25, 2017

    Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch


    The ongoing controversy over Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean has provided no shortage of conversation material this summer, including an unintentional commentary on the degraded state of academic standards in the history profession. When I first read this book at the beginning of the summer, I was shocked at the sheer volume of factual inaccuracies and unsupported claims appearing on almost every single page. I documented a few of the more blatant errors at the time, as well as a couple of claims that appeared to be outright fabrications in the text.

    Having a longstanding interest in James M. Buchanan’s ideas, I also started checking up on MacLean’s archival sources to see how accurately she represented her materials. One passage in particular struck me as needing further scrutiny. It concerned her depiction of a 1959 article that Buchanan and his University of Virginia colleague Warren Nutter wrote in response to the ongoing school desegregation controversy in the state. The article itself intentionally avoided wading into the racial politics of segregation, offering instead a brief overview of the political economy of public and private education systems. MacLean nonetheless makes it into her Exhibit A in a fanciful tale that accuses Buchanan and Nutter of opportunistically assisting a group of segregationist politicians from Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.’s political machine in an ill-fated attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education.

    The passage that stood out appears below:

    Specifically, it strongly implies that Buchanan and Nutter timed the release of their education article with James J. Kilpatrick, a Byrd-aligned newspaper editor. The suggestion of coordination is odd because Kilpatrick edited the Richmond News-Leader, widely known at the time as an uncompromising segregationist rag. Yet as MacLean’s final sentence acknowledges, Buchanan and Nutter actually published their article in the competitor Richmond Times-Dispatch.

    Kilpatrick is a central figure in MacLean’s story. In addition to implying direct coordination in this passage, she portrays Kilpatrick as a primary intellectual link between Buchanan’s academic projects and Virginia’s segregationist political class. The link is necessary to her story because, as MacLean concedes at one point, there is no evidence that Buchanan and Byrd ever met each other let alone worked together on a scheme to preserve school segregation. So I decided to investigate the relevant archival materials, and see what Kilpatrick and Buchanan actually said to each other.

    It turns out that the answer is exceedingly little. Kilpatrick’s papers at the University of Virginia contain only two letters from Buchanan, as well as another two from Nutter. None concern the 1959 education paper. Furthermore, they suggest no more than a passing acquaintance between the two economists and Kilpatrick.

    Buchanan wrote Kilpatrick all of twice. The first was in 1965 to forward a copy of Gordon Tullock’s book Bureaucracy in a solicitation of a routine book review from the paper. The second was in 1967 to request a copy of an op-ed on Social Security reform that reportedly cited one of Buchanan’s academic works. Nutter similarly corresponded with Kilpatrick all of twice. The first was a form letter in 1958, sent to three different newspaper editors. It pitched a story on the government’s attempted suppression of an academic book about Japanese Internment during World War II, highlighting Earl Warren’s hypocritical involvement in that tragedy. The second exchange of letters involved a request for newspaper coverage of an upcoming lecture at UVA by Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1966. Nutter had been an economic adviser to the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964.

    None of these materials even remotely support the charge of coordination between the economists and James J. Kilpatrick over the school segregation issue. Instead, they suggest the men barely even knew each other and only then as it concerned unrelated matters separated from the education paper by several years.

    There’s another story that MacLean missed however, and that concerns the second newspaper – the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It was edited at the time by Virginius Dabney, himself a veteran civil rights supporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for waging a fight against Virginia’s poll tax. Dabney was also an early public supporter of desegregation who pushed to end the institution on Richmond’s streetcars and who directed his newspaper’s scrutiny into the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. By the late 1950s the owners of the Times-Dispatch – seeking to avoid the ire of the Byrd machine – barred Dabney from openly editorializing against “massive resistance” to school desegregation. He personally opposed Byrd’s segregationist program though, and revealed that the paper’s owners had censored his editorial page after his retirement in 1969. In any case, at the time of the Buchanan-Nutter article, the Times-Dispatch was still widely known as the more moderate of Richmond’s two papers compared to Kilpatrick’s virulently segregationist News-Leader.

    Dabney’s role in this story is important though because, unlike Kilpatrick, he actually was deeply involved with the economists’ Thomas Jefferson Center (TJC) at UVA. The connection came from a longstanding friendship with Nutter after the two were introduced in 1957, shortly after the founding of the TJC. Nutter and Dabney discovered that they shared a mutual dislike for the rising tide of central planning in the economics profession of the day. As Dabney explained in a letter to Nutter on July 2, 1957, “One of my great worries has been the tendency of teachers of economics to take the Keynesian road, and to defend huge government spending, socialization of public utilities and nearly everything else.”

    An intellectual friendship was struck. Or as Dabney put it in the same letter, “I think we’re going to turn out to be a couple of soul-mates after all.” Nutter responded by sharing a copy of the new TJC’s founding prospectus with Dabney. Over the course of the next decade until Dabney’s retirement from the newspaper, they corresponded regularly about such issues as the TJC’s activities, the Goldwater campaign, and a series of academic studies that Nutter published on the Soviet economy.

    All of these records point to a far more likely explanation of how the 1959 education article made its way into print. Rather than coordinating with Kilpatrick of the News-Leader as MacLean claims, Buchanan and Nutter were actually working with Dabney of the Times-Dispatch.

    Although Dabney’s personal files do not contain the newspaper’s records that might show when the article was submitted, they do include a later set of correspondence where Nutter invited Dabney to review proofs of the same article after the TJC issued it as a standalone pamphlet. Combined with Nutter’s personal friendship and extended correspondence, Dabney’s paper was an obvious venue to run the original article by Buchanan and Nutter on April 12-13, 1959.

    This episode is illustrative of the overarching presence of confirmation bias in MacLean’s book. She approached her project with a zeal to link Buchanan to the discrediting reputations of Virginia’s leading segregationists. Kilpatrick fit this billing, so she appears to have written him into the story on the flimsiest of evidence. Yet in doing so she completely missed the more obvious and thoroughly documented connections between the TJC and Dabney.

    She did not see Dabney because he was not consistent with the preconceived segregationist narrative she was looking to find. Or invent in the case of its failure to turn up.

    Illiberal Reviewers

    Posted By on September 13, 2017

    The Journal of Economic Literature (JEL), a well-regarded academic journal that covers research trends and practices in the profession, published an extremely unusual and in many ways problematic review article in its September 2017 issue. It’s behind a paywall, but if you have access to the AEA website you can view it here.

    The article takes the form of a 20-page broadside against Thomas C. Leonard’s recent book Illiberal Reformers, a study of the role of eugenics in the founding of the economics profession. Leonard’s book dives into an inescapably controversial subject that brings up ugly matters of pseudo-scientific racial theory and related attempts at hereditary planning that attracted a following among several distinguished founding members of the AEA. It does so with remarkable even-handedness that is meticulously sourced and has attracted widespread acclaim in the profession. For example, it received the 2017 book prize from the History of Economics Society – the main scholarly association for experts in the history of economic thought.

    The JEL review is a true outlier to this pattern, and a particularly caustic one at that. Its authors – think tank economist Marshall Steinbaum and historian Bernard Weisberger – are unusual choices to write this review, particularly in a high-ranked economics journal. Neither author has much of a demonstrated expertise in the highly specialized subject matter of Leonard’s book, and in the lead author Steinbaum’s case, the review itself is actually his debut publication in a ranked economic journal. Assigning this review to two non-specialists, one of them a novice, makes for an odd editorial decision in any circumstance for an upper tier journal. Occasionally these things slip through the cracks, as journals do receive dozens or even hundreds of book submissions for review and editors are often left playing catch-up to simply cover the materials in their possession.

    What troubles me more about the JEL piece though is its coupling of an aggressive attack on Leonard’s scholarship with very little substance to justify its derision. The review opens by accusing Leonard of “motivated history” and proceeds to cite him for a long list of malpractices:

    “sweeping statements about what “the progressives” believed, festooned with cherry-picked quotes and out-of-context examples, without much of a hearing for either their opponents or for debate and disagreement among themselves.”

    Oddly enough, the 19 or so pages that follow provide very little in the way of specific examples of where Leonard allegedly committed these scholarly sins. It simply asserts them as so. The charges are rendered doubly ironic when one realizes that co-author Steinbaum has also spent the last few months as one of the most vocal and public advocates of Nancy MacLean’s evidentiary train wreck of a book, Democracy in Chains. And triply so when considering that Steinbaum’s defense of MacLean is premised upon his acceptance of her unsupported and innuendo-laden charges of “racism” against James M. Buchanan and the public choice school of thought.

    In the JEL review, Steinbaum and Weisberger attempt the opposite maneuver of trying to exonerate a group of early 20th century racist progressives from – well – their own racism, as documented in Leonard’s book. The JEL review essentially becomes a political exercise in damage control over the faults of its historical subjects.

    While Leonard is careful to contextualize the eugenic and racial theories of men such as Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, and Edward A. Ross in the academic discourse of the time where such beliefs ran rampant, Steinbaum and Weisberger approach his mere raising of this long-neglected subject as a personal affront to their own deeply progressive political beliefs in the present day. This leads them to attempt to bury the documentation Leonard uncovered in euphemism. The active eugenic campaigning by Leonard’s subjects – taking the form of lengthy published tracts on racial pseudoscience and leadership roles in eugenic organizations – thus becomes shortened to the “involvement of some progressives in eugenic advocacy” and a “blind eye toward racism” as differentiated from actual racism itself.

    A few of these figures – Commons and Ross – were so inextricably wedded to white supremacist notions that they do become difficult for Steinbaum and Weisberger to ignore entirely. But that leads them to arguably the most egregious of their attacks on Leonard. On the first column of p. 1078 in the review, Steinbaum and Weisberger attempt to rehabilitate Commons and Ross from Leonard’s depiction by presenting their “exclusionary” (read: racist) views as a more benign expression than other forms of racism in their time. They are allegedly tempered by motive, as Commons and Ross supposedly used “exclusionary” arguments in the service of collective bargaining for other groups of oppressed and marginalized workers. It is not a complete clearing of their names, but it does seek to soften the problems with these progressive economists’ racial views.

    Steinbaum and Weisberger contrast this comparatively restrained and worker-centric motive with a more malicious view that they assign to unspecified laissez-faire “intellectual adversaries” of progressivism from the turn of the century. The more malicious view, of course, is a racist typology rooted in control and oppression out of service to “the market.”

    There’s a problem with Steinbaum and Weisberger’s argument though, as it not only breezes past Leonard’s evidence – it blatantly misrepresents Leonard’s findings. The side-by-side comparison below of the Steinbaum/Weisberger review and one of the racist tracts Leonard cites from John R. Commons is illustrative:

    The section on the left and highlighted in blue is Steinbaum and Weisberger’s description of the racism they attribute to the progressives’ laissez-faire opponents. It contrasts with the euphemism-coated depiction they offer of Commons in the sentences immediately before it.

    To the right and highlighted in yellow, I present the text of John R. Commons’ 1904 essay “Racial composition of the American People,” which Leonard cites while discussing his racial views. It’s a particularly nasty passage in which Commons describes African-Americans as a genetically “indolent and fickle” race. He then proceeds to make the very same racist argument that Steinbaum and Weisberger attempt to excise from his work and assign to his adversaries. Commons asserts that the black race will only work if compelled to do so and even goes so far as to hint that slavery illustrated this principle, stopping just short of defending the institution.

    This example is, unfortunately, characteristic of the remainder of Steinbaum and Weisberger’s essay. It also abuses basic historical evidence to advance an ideologically motivated sanitizing of Commons’ beliefs. It will be interesting to see what the JEL’s editors make of having such an egregious misrepresentation of evidence appear in their journal.

    Houston flooding in historical perspective: no, zoning would not have stopped Harvey

    Posted By on August 31, 2017

    I grew up in Houston, and weathered numerous hurricanes and lesser storms. It’s a relatively rare but predictably recurring part of life along the gulf coast, just as earthquakes are part of life in California and blizzards are part of life in New England. As I write this, the Houston area is just beginning to drain from the devastating floods and rainfall that hit the city in the wake of hurricane Harvey.

    Harvey was an exceptionally catastrophic storm.

    Some parts of the city recorded as high as 50 inches in rainfall. According to one estimate, the deluge that hit the Houston area contained enough water to raise all five of the Great Lakes by almost a foot.

    In terms of flood severity and damage, Harvey has proven and exceptionally destructive storm. Yet it also followed a familiar pattern that many longtime Houston residents know all too well. Harvey certainly proved to be a bigger and more devastating storm than anything in recent memory, but its images of flooded freeways and overflowing bayou channels spilling into the middle of urban streets were also reminiscent of the last storm that followed a similar pattern, tropical storm Allison in 2001. Older generations remember earlier storms and hurricanes that produced similar effects going back decades, although you have to return to December 6-9, 1935 to find an example that compares to Harvey’s stats.

    Houston was a much smaller city in 1935, both in population and in geographical spread. But by some metrics the 1935 flood was even more severe. Buffalo Bayou – the main waterway through downtown – peaked at over 54 feet. Harvey, in all its devastation, hit “only” 40 feet by comparison. The 1935 storm dropped less rain, the maximum recorded being about 20 inches to the north of town where Houston’s main airport now sits. But it was also complicated by the problem of severe storms upstream that flowed into town and caused almost all of the other creeks and bayous that flooded last weekend to exceed their banks. Reports at the time noted that as much as 2/3rds of what was then rural and unpopulated farmland in surrounding Harris County saw flooding. Those areas are now suburbs today.

    The effects of the 1935 flood on populated areas are also eerily similar to what we saw on television over the weekend. I recommend watching this film of the aftermath for comparison. All of downtown was underwater, as the film shows. People were stranded on rooftops as rivers of water emerged around them. There are even clips of rescuers navigating the streets of neighborhoods in small boats and canoes as water reached second and third stories on nearby buildings.

    In the aftermath of the 1935 flood, the federal government commissioned an extensive study of Houston’s rainfall patterns. They produced the following map of the Houston storm’s effects, showing unsettling similarities to what we just witnessed (note that this map does not include the areas to the north of town, where rainfall in 1935 was significantly higher. These are the suburbs that flooded along Cypress and Spring Creeks last weekend and the farmland that similarly flooded in 1935)

    And therein lies the importance of history to understanding what we just witnessed in catastrophic form this weekend. Houston floods fairly regularly. In fact, downtown Houston has suffered a major flood on average about once a decade as far back as records extend in the 1830s.

    Some have been exceptionally catastrophic as is the case with Harvey, but floods are a regular thing in Houston. This list contains several dozen major floods and goes back to the founding of the city. Some of the early examples are only sparsely recorded, but note the regularity of flooding in downtown in particular.

    1837 – Buffalo Bayou flooded, with 4 feet of water recorded on Main Street.

    1841 – Flooding washed out two bridges over Buffalo Bayou

    1853 – Buffalo Bayou overflows its banks causing a major flood in downtown

    1875 – Buffalo and White Oak Bayous overflow in the aftermath of a hurricane, washing out all bridges except for one

    1879 – Buffalo and White Oak Bayous overflow causing major flooding in downtown

    1887 – Buffalo Bayou overflows, washing out several bridges downtown

    Records become significantly better in the early 20th century, attesting to a continuation of this pattern in well-documented storms. In addition to the 1935 flood, major flooding inundated downtown in 1913, 1929, and 1932. Flood-mitigation efforts such as the construction of levees and retention ponds lessened the severity of all but the worst storms after 1935, but tropical storms and hurricanes throughout the 20th century revealed Houston’s continued vulnerability to storms.

    The reasons have to do almost entirely with topography and geography. Houston sits on the gulf of Mexico in an active hurricane zone that attracts large storms. But more significantly, Houston’s topography is extraordinarily flat. The elevation drop across the entire city and region is extremely modest. Most local waterways are slow-moving creeks and bayous that wind their way through town and eventually trickle into the shallow, marshy Trinity and Galveston bays. Drainage is slow on a normal day. During a deluge, these systems fill rapidly with water that effectively has nowhere to go.

    We’ve seen a flurry of commentators in the past few days attributing Houston’s flooding to a litany of pet political causes. Aside from the normal carping about “climate change” (which always makes for a convenient point of blame for bad warm weather events, even as environmentalists simultaneously decry the old conservative canard about blizzards contradicting Al Gore), several pundits and journalists have opportunistically seized upon Houston’s famously lax zoning and land use regulations to blame Harvey’s destruction on “sprawl” and call for “SmartGrowth” policies that restrict and heavily regulate future construction in the city.

    According to this argument, Harvey’s floods are a byproduct of unrestricted suburban development in the north and west of the city at the expense of prairies that would supposedly absorb rainwater at sufficient rates to prevent natural disasters and that supposedly served this purpose “naturally” in the past.

    There are multiple problems with this line of argument that suggest it is rooted in naked political opportunism rather than actual concern for Houston’s flooding problems.

    First, as we’ve established in the preceding history lesson, flooding has been a regular feature of Houston’s landscape since the beginning of recorded history in the region. And catastrophic flooding – including multiple storms in the 19th century and the well-documented flood of December 1935 – predates any of the “sprawl” that has provoked these armchair urban designers’ ire.

    Second, the flooding we saw in Harvey is largely a result of creeks and bayous backlogging and spilling over their banks as more water rushes in from upstream. While parking lot and roadway runoff from “sprawl” certainly makes its way into these streams, it is hardly the source of the problem. The slow-moving and windy Brazos river reached record levels as a result of Harvey and spilled over its banks, despite being nowhere near the city’s “sprawl.” The mostly-rural prairie along Interstate 10 to the extreme west of the city recorded some of the worst flooding in terms of water volume due to the Brazos overflow, although fortunately property damage here will be much lower due to being rural.

    Third, the very notion that Houston is a giant concrete-laden water retention pond is itself a pernicious myth peddled by unscrupulous urban planning activists and media outlets. In total acres, Houston has more parkland and green space than any other large city in America and ranks third overall to San Diego and Dallas in park acreage per capita.

    But even more telling is a 2011 study by the Houston-Galveston Area Council that actually measured the ratio of impervious-to-pervious land cover within the city limits (basically the amount of water-blocking concrete vs. water-absorbing green land). The study used an index scale to measure water-absorption land uses. A low score (defined as less than 2.0 on the scale) indicates a high presence of green relative to concrete. A high score (defined as greater than 5.0) indicates high concrete and low levels of greenery and other water-absorbing cover. The result are in the map below, showing the city limits. Gray corresponds to high levels of pervious surfaces (or greenery). Black corresponds to high impervious surface use (basically either concrete or lakes that collect runoff). As the map shows, over 90% of the land in the city limits is gray, indicating more greenery and higher water absorption. Although they did not measure unincorporated Harris County, it also tends to be substantially less dense than the city itself.

    Does this mean that impervious land uses are not a problem and do not contribute to floods in any way? No. But to cite them as a principal cause of the destruction witnessed in Harvey is purely a political move aimed at generating support for a long list of intrusive regulatory policies.

    Houston’s flood problems are a distinctive feature of its topography and geography, and they long predate any “sprawl.” While steps have been taken over the years to mitigate them and reduce the severity of flooding, a rare but catastrophic event will unavoidably overwhelm even the most sophisticated flood control systems. Harvey was one such event – certainly the highest floodwater event to hit Houston in over 80 years, and possibly the worst deluge in its recorded history. But it is entirely consistent with almost 2 centuries of recorded historical patterns. In the grander scheme of causes for Harvey’s flooding, “sprawl” does not even meaningfully register.


    *Edit: typo corrected to reflect Houston’s per capita park space ranking, which is third among large cities behind San Diego and Dallas.

    Buchanan and Agrarianism – a revealing passage

    Posted By on July 19, 2017

    In James M. Buchanan’s autobiography Better than Plowing, he offers a fascinating late-life reflection on a subject that he refers to as the country aesthetic. The discussion occurs in the 8th chapter of the book, which is about his reflections on life in old age. It’s a fascinating read and tells how Buchanan – at the prodding of Gordon Tullock – bought a tract of rural property in southwest Virginia for his retirement.

    Buchanan comments at length about his transition from a busy and incredibly productive academic career to the peaceful life of a small cabin. He also notes that a short while earlier, such a move would have been unthinkable to him as someone who spent the majority of his adult life in the halls and classrooms of large research universities. He also pauses to contrast the country aesthetic of his retirement to his own upbringing on a farm in rural Tennessee, which he remembered quite differently:

    “As chapter 2 should have made clear, my early life could scarcely have produced in me some romanticized yearning for the drudgery of the yeoman farmer. And, through the middle decades of my life I felt no yearning to return to the soil, to seek out my roots, to engage with nature directly in some continuing struggle to transform the wild into the fruitful. Nor did I lapse into the opposing green absurdity, the abstracted longing for some return to nature, even if red in tooth and claw. I was, for three full decades, willing to live simply in the complex and interdependent world of modernity, content to purchase my necessaries at the market from income earned in peddling my academic wares in the markets of their own. I sensed no foregone fulfillment in my failures to walk among golden daffodils, and neither in painting nor in poetry did the idealizations of natures wonders stimulate my notice.” (pp. 109-110)

    The referenced Chapter 2 is Buchanan’s account of his boyhood. It is a story of growing up in poverty on a farm in rural Tennessee, replete with the hardships of tilling fields, of no electricity or central heating and the harsh winters that entailed, and of the slim financial means his family possessed. While Buchanan does not malign this life of his youth, it is abundantly clear from his telling that he left it by intent and did not look back to it as an idealized time in his life.

    The purpose of Chapter 8 is to juxtapose the two – the hardships of his rural childhood with the rediscovery of the rural way of life in retirement. The latter carried with it a new appreciation for the country aesthetic that was conspicuously subdued in his prior experience.

    This story stands in marked contrast with the walking paean to Agrarianism that Nancy MacLean depicts in her book Democracy in Chains. As I’ve noted in my previous posts, MacLean consciously tries to write the pro-segregation Vanderbilt Agrarian poets into Buchanan’s own intellectual history, and particularly Donald Davidson. She does so with almost no evidence whatsoever – it’s a connection that she conjures up out of thin air and then shoehorns into her own deeply politicized narrative. It’s a convenient shoehorning considering MacLean’s later objective of painting Buchanan’s academic career as a sort of intellectual service to Virginia’s segregationists in the wake of Brown v. Board (a claim she also makes with no evidence). It also unwittingly causes her to miss the central relevance of Thomas Hobbes’ influence upon Buchanan’s thought – a critical and damning oversight for a book that purports to be a work of “intellectual history.”

    Note the passage above by Buchanan in which he describes his departure from the rural lifestyle as a young man. Now compare it with how MacLean portrays the same events on page 34 of her book:

    “When [Buchanan] left Tennessee for New York to do his military service in 1941, the new graduate seemed to see through lenses wholly crafted by Donald Davidson.”

    Davidson, of course, was an intellectual partisan of a romanticized Agrarian lifestyle and articulated an aggressive defense of the very same thing Buchanan admits he was leaving behind. Keep in mind that MacLean is certainly aware of Buchanan’s Better than Plowing – she cites from it multiple times. And yet here she completely inverts the meaning of Buchanan’s own recollections to tell a story exactly opposite of the one Buchanan told. I think it’s fair to inquire at this point about fundamental questions of MacLean’s own honesty with her sources.

    On Intellectual History and MacLean’s Missing Leviathan

    Posted By on July 17, 2017

    Today I’ll offer a quick observation on the ongoing controversy about Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

    In several recent interviews MacLean has presented her work as an “intellectual history” of James Buchanan. A few historians have come to her defense as well, taking a similar line and also suggesting that MacLean’s critics either don’t understand or are “misreading” the methods and “best practices” of intellectual history by focusing upon her thin documentation of the figures she presents as Buchanan’s intellectual influences.

    This line of argument reveals a critical oversight in MacLean’s treatment of Buchanan. It also shows that the claim about “intellectual history” methods is largely hollow. That oversight is the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

    If you are even minimally familiar with the work of Buchanan, you should know that one of the most important, recurring, and indeed ubiquitous thinkers that he engages across his vast body of scholarship is Thomas Hobbes. I’d even go so far as to suggest that it’s impossible to accurately write an intellectual history of Buchanan without understanding the deep complexities of his decades-long engagement with Hobbes’ work and his adopted role as Hobbes’ frequent interlocutor (yes, there are other figures like Frank Knight and Knut Wicksell who warrant similar notice for their formative influences on Buchanan’s political economy. Hobbes is a central figure – both utilized and engaged – in Buchanan’s political theory).

    Nor is any of this a big secret. Buchanan probably refers to Hobbes a hundred times or more in his collected academic works, and three of his major books centrally engage what he calls the Leviathan model of government in a direct and obvious reference to Hobbes’ famous work.

    So where is Hobbes in Nancy MacLean’s purported “intellectual history” of James M. Buchanan? Almost completely absent. He appears only once – a passing reference on page 33, where he is quickly cast aside and replaced by a completely imaginary connection to the obscure segregationist Agrarian poet Donald Davidson as the supposed source of Buchanan’s Leviathan concept.

    So not only does MacLean appear to have invented a non-existent connection to Davidson. In doing so she unintentionally jettisoned a central figure – Hobbes – from Buchanan’s corpus of scholarship.

    Nancy MacLean’s segregationist sins of omission…and commission

    Posted By on July 15, 2017

    One of the most inflammatory charges of Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains holds that James M. Buchanan, and by extension his department and research center at the University of Virginia, served as something of an intellectual buttress to the segregationist forces of 1950s and 1960s Virginia politics after Brown v. Board. MacLean has very little direct evidence for this charge – in fact she’s even conceded in a couple of interviews that she has no direct documentation of Buchanan ever writing anything in favor of segregation. Her footnotes are similarly flimsy on this point and she resorts to misreading and misrepresenting Buchanan’s work on school choice to make her argument (Steve Horwitz documents the issues here).

    To bolster her non-existent case, MacLean resorts to playing a game of six degrees of separation in which she deploys a heavy stream of innuendo and unfounded supposition to write Buchanan into the pro-segregation political apparatus of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. and a Richmond newspaper editor. As I’ve documented in my previous posts, she also fabricates claims out of thin air that allege Buchanan’s intellectual debts to the pro-segregation Vanderbilt Agrarians and to the 19th century pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun. Remarkably, there’s almost no evidence for any of these claims – just a fanciful tale that is increasingly taking on conspiratorial overtones in the way that MacLean has mounted her defense.

    Sadly, a number of historians have displayed a remarkable credulity for MacLean’s claims on this point, even refusing to engage the evidence. One recent exception appears on the blog of John P. Jackson, who at least attempts to mount an actual defense of MacLean’s interpretation of Buchanan’s time at UVA. The whole piece is worth reading and engaging, but the core of Jackson’s argument on Brown and segregation appears in the following excerpt:

    “So, if we take the book as a whole, we find that MacLean shows that Buchanan was embedded in a state power structure where only those folks who were reliably segregationist were allowed to work (the famed “Byrd Machine” of Virginia), that he did nothing to rock that boat, and that his theories and arguments were welcomed by those looking to preserve segregation.”

    In assessing this argument, it’s important to recognize that Jackson accepts MacLean’s own portrayal of her evidence at face value. He does not get into the matter of whether she’s even proven her case, or whether her footnotes support her claims. He treats them as if they have been demonstrated as true.

    It’s a problematic position for him to begin with and again I’d encourage any reader to review the aforementioned links in which MacLean’s misuse of evidence is documented. But I want to focus on another aspect of Jackson’s argument, as I believe it does raise an important point: what was Buchanan’s relationship to the segregationist political environment around him in 1950s and 1960s Virginia? Jackson appears to believe that Buchanan lent it support through a combination of indirect policies such as school choice and silent acquiescence to the political machine around him. His source for this claim is, again, a mostly uncritical acceptance of MacLean’s own narrative, which asserts more or less the same thing.

    There’s another problem though: MacLean’s narrative about UVA is badly flawed. In order to portray Buchanan as a collusive and acquiescing partner of Virginia’s segregationist political machine, she omitted a critical piece of evidence that contradicts her narrative.

    In 1965 Buchanan recruited an economist by the name of William H. Hutt to serve as a visiting professor at the Thomas Jefferson Center, his hub of operations at UVA. Hutt was a natural fit for the role. He had recently retired from his position as chair of the economics department at the University of Capetown in South Africa. He was also an early contributor to the public choice school of thought, and his work drew heavily upon Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent. Hutt’s own academic reputation is noteworthy though because he was one of the leading academic opponents in South Africa of that country’s notorious Apartheid regime.

    Before he came to UVA, Hutt spent almost three decades criticizing the Apartheid government of his own country. His work repeatedly drew the ire of the South African government. In one notable instance from 1955, the Apartheid regime even suspended Hutt’s passport in an attempt to prevent him from presenting on the barbarism of this policy abroad. He regained his travel rights after a public controversy over his academic freedom, and remained undeterred in criticizing the South African government. Hutt’s work on Apartheid eventually culminated in a book length treatment of the subject entitled The Economics of the Colour Bar, which he published in 1964. The work notably employs an early version of public choice theory to explain the origins of Apartheid in South Africa as a form of regulatory capture to the benefit of white labor unions over black workers.

    When Buchanan recruited Hutt the following year, his international reputation as an Apartheid critic was near its peak. Hutt joined the department at UVA over the winter of 1965-66 and remained there for about two years on an extended stay. Drawing upon his recent book, Hutt delivered multiple lectures at Virginia and other universities in the region about the economics of Apartheid. During his stay Hutt also noticed an alarming similarity between the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the segregation in the southern United States. His home country’s brutal laws were more overt and severe, but the two only differed in degree. In fact, Hutt noticed that many segregationist laws had similar origins to South Africa. Both aimed to keep the black workforce out of competition and other forms of economic association with whites, and both used race to achieve this end.

    In short order, Hutt began extending his analysis of Apartheid to what he saw around him in the segregationist United States. While under Buchanan’s sponsorship at Virginia, he gave multiple lectures on this subject and penned a short article for the journal Modern Age describing their similarities. A  choice excerpt follows:

    “My own contribution to the gathering was a comparison of the not altogether dissimilar situation in my own country (the Republic of South Africa). I explained the origins of injustices to which the non-whites of South Africa have for long been subject; and general discussion suggested that, in several respects, the real disabilities of the American Negro population can be traced to the identical ultimate causes.”

    Hutt preceded to explain the differences of the two countries. Importantly, South Africa was majority-black while blacks were a minority in the United States. This, in part, explained the severity and virulent racism of the former regime when compared to the latter’s preference for more indirect forms of discrimination, among them the “separate but equal” doctrine. The similarities were nonetheless pronounced. Hutt continued:

    “These and other differences do not prevent us, however, from recognizing that in both countries, and for not very different reasons, non-whites are condemned to inferiority of productive opportunities, income, status, and respect. The reasons are rooted deeply in history. Yet many of the whites of this generation must share responsibility for perpetuation of the inferiority; for there are deliberately imposed man-made barriers to equality of economic opportunity barriers which are, I suggest, by all odds the most important ultimate cause of inequality of civil rights.”

    MacLean is certainly aware of Hutt’s presence at UVA because she mentions that Buchanan recruited him on p. 59 of her book. But she also conveniently leaves out any references whatsoever to Hutt’s research and activities during his time the Jefferson Center. In fact, she twists and contorts it in an opposite direction that even goes so far as to imply Hutt’s complicity in the same blatantly fabricated segregationist conspiracy she uses to tar Buchanan. Note the underlined segments in the excerpt below:

    MacLean makes no mention of Hutt’s better-known book on Apartheid, or the fact that his academic work and lectures while at UVA explicitly targeted both Apartheid and the parallel segregation regime in the United States. Not content to stop at this sin of omission though, MacLean converts it into a sin of commission. She highlights Hutt’s criticism of labor unions in a decade-old book and contorts it into an implicit nod of support for Virginia’s segregationist political class.

    Even this charge is absurd on its face. As Hutt repeatedly noted in his work, white labor unions were a major source of political support for Apartheid in South Africa. But MacLean subscribes to a worldview where labor unions are sacrosanct. And that, apparently, includes a license to violate the most basic evidentiary norms of the historian’s trade out of service to her political argument.

    Nancy MacLean’s Calhounite Imagination

    Posted By on June 29, 2017

    In my last post I documented how Nancy MacLean, the author of the new book Democracy in Chains, misused evidence to depict a non-existent intellectual debt between the economist James M. Buchanan and a group of pro-segregation Agrarian poets from Vanderbilt University. MacLean’s primary purpose in doing so was to prop up her own narrative, which portrays Buchanan’s role in the development of Public Choice economics as having been motivated by resentment over the Brown v. Board decision. This claim is not supported by any evidence in Buchanan’s works either.

    I’d like to turn to another similarly unsavory claim in MacLean’s book next, that of John C. Calhoun. As with the Agrarians, MacLean attempts to place Calhoun at the center of Buchanan’s work and the Public Choice school of thought more broadly. She minces no words in advancing this claim. At the outset of the book she declares Calhoun the “intellectual lodestar” of Buchanan and his heirs. She similarly describes Calhoun as a “recurrent theme in the brain trust” of scholars funded by the Koch brothers and devotes the prologue of her book to belaboring the different ways in which Buchanan is allegedly a secret Calhounite.

    MacLean’s argument runs into an immediate problem though. As with her claims about Donald Davidson and the Agrarians, Calhoun’s name does not appear anywhere in the 20 volume Collected Works of James M. Buchanan.

    To get around this complete deficiency of evidence, MacLean again resorts to her own imagination to forge the link nonetheless. She starts by enlisting a highly conspiratorial reading of a scholarly article by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok on a few similarities between Public Choice voting rule insights and Calhoun’s theoretical concept of the concurrent majority. The article itself is innocuous and steeped in textual analysis of this narrow point. Simply discussing Calhoun in a scholarly argument does not, after all, make one a Calhoun acolyte. Even Richard Hofstadter, the progressive historian who MacLean cites for her chapter title (and then conveniently neglects to read) conceded that Calhoun was “the last American statesman to do any primary political thinking.” Surely that recognition does not make Hofstadter a secret aficionado of plantation slavery.  MacLean is almost wholly uninterested in an intellectual discussion of the complexities of Calhoun though, preferring instead to enlist it as “proof” that Buchanan had somehow instilled Calhoun’s pro-slavery principles into his colleagues and proteges – and all despite never once mentioning his name.

    There is a far simpler explanation, of course. Buchanan’s Calculus of Consent was rooted in an exploration of James Madison’s theory of federalism, and in particular the use of constitutional mechanisms to constrain factional captures of legislative majorities. Calhoun similarly developed his concept of the concurrent majority as an extended commentary on Madison. Quite simply, any similarities between the two arise from the fact that they were both engaging the same well known arguments of the same author.

    Still, a single 1992 article about Calhoun’s concurrent majoritarian theories by two faculty colleagues of Buchanan falls far short of a basis from which to write Calhoun into Buchanan’s own work from the 1960s. This is where MacLean gets creative.

    As a substitute for Buchanan’s own works – which, again, are completely silent on Calhoun – she turns instead to Murray Rothbard, who wrote a few passages in the 1960s in which he spoke favorably of Calhoun’s concurrent majority concept. Since Rothbard was (a) supported by Koch and (b) a libertarian contemporary of Buchanan, this juxtaposition is apparently sufficient in her mind to link Calhoun into Buchanan’s own work. The Rothbard passage appears below:

    From there it is but a small step to point out Calhoun’s radical defenses of slavery, and thus tarnish Buchanan and Public Choice theory with that brush.

    MacLean’s argument neglected to account for a substantial complication. Rothbard, it turns out, was no fan of Buchanan or The Calculus of Consent, his main work (along with Gordon Tullock) on majoritarian constitutional mechanisms. In a 1960 essay for a book reviewer, Rothbard harshly criticized the work and specifically argued that it fell outside of the main body of libertarian political theory.

    “I am so out of sympathy with James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent that I don’t think a particularly detailed critique to send to them would be worthwhile. I recognize that there are some merits to the piece: a searching for methodological individualism in political science, an emphasis upon unanimity rather than majority rule, and a harking back to the constitutional system of 1900 as better than the situation today. But these merits are, I believe, more ad hoc than integral to the main body of work. In considering the work as a whole, they are far overshadowed by the numerous flaws and fallacies.”

    Rothbard concluded by stating that the thought “the nub of the entire analysis of the book…is utterly and absolutely wrong.” Buchanan, for his own part, was not particularly fond of Rothbard’s contributions either as Don Boudreaux points out.

    Once again, Nancy MacLean went casting about for a link between James Buchanan and unsavory connections to white supremacist viewpoints – this time by way of Calhoun. Once again, she was unable to find any evidence of that connection in Buchanan’s own works. So what did she do instead? She invented one by stringing together other sources that do not actually show what she claims they show. And in fact, she failed to realize that the the author she uses to build a link from Buchanan to Calhoun – Murray Rothbard – was deeply hostile to Buchanan’s own work, directly contradicting her claimed link.

    (HT Michael Makovi for alerting me to the source of the Rothbard essay on Buchanan)

    How Nancy MacLean went whistlin’ Dixie

    Posted By on June 27, 2017

    If you read Duke University historian Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains, you will probably come away thinking that the late economist James M. Buchanan believed himself to be something of an intellectual heir to the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the 1930s. According to MacLean, these now-obscure southern literary figures were a main reason Buchanan wanted to go to Vanderbilt University.

    Even though Buchanan’s family ultimately could not afford to send him to the prestigious university, MacLean claims that Buchanan owed these men a direct intellectual debt. They allegedly “stamped his vision of the good society and the just state.”  One of the Agrarians in particular, she claims, had a “decisive” influence on “Jim Buchanan’s emerging intellectual system” – the poet Donald Davidson.

    MacLean has a very specific reason for making this claim, and she returns to it at multiple points in her book. The Agrarians, in addition to spawning a southern literary revival (the novelist Robert Penn Warren was one of their members), were also segregationists. By connecting them to Buchanan, she bolsters one of the primary charges of her book: an attempt to link Buchanan’s economic theories to a claimed resentment over Brown v. Board and the subsequent defeat of racial segregation in 1960s Virginia.

    MacLean’s argument presents a challenge. Buchanan wrote very little on Brown or the ensuing school desegregation, and the archival evidence she presents from his papers is both thin and far short of the smoking gun she implies it to be. Instead, she sets out to strengthen her portrayal of Buchanan as a segregationist by tying him to other known segregationists. The Agrarians, and specifically Davidson, serve this purpose in her narrative by becoming formative intellectual influences on Buchanan.

    There’s a problem with MacLean’s story though: it appears to be completely made up.

    Her footnotes to the passages on the Agrarians don’t actually check out, and the Davidson link in particular appears to be a figment of her own imagination. I’ll walk through the sources in detail, starting with the passage where Davidson appears:

    MacLean’s purpose here is to identify Davidson as the font for one of Buchanan’s most frequently enlisted concepts from his academic work – the all-powerful Leviathan state. Of course most students of political philosophy will automatically recognize that this metaphor is a famous one. It derives from the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, as MacLean begrudgingly concedes. But Buchanan’s version of the Leviathan is different, she contends – a product of Davidson’s “new and distinctive” use to describe a northern-dominated post-Civil War federal government and thus a code-word for racially tinged “states rights” and other nefarious purposes.

    There’s another problem with MacLean’s evidence. Donald Davidson’s name does not appear anywhere in Buchanan’s academic works. The massive 20 volume Collected Works of James Buchanan is searchable online. It contains most of his major books and papers and it does not yield a single hit for the name. Thomas Hobbes, by contrast, is one of the most frequently discussed figures in Buchanan’s works according to the index:

    MacLean nonetheless presses ahead with her invented connection and attempts to tar Buchanan with a litany of vices from the Agrarians: sympathy with the Confederacy, voter suppression, and racial animosity toward African-Americans. These and other charges may be seen in the passage below from MacLean, including a quotation that she claims to show Buchanan’s endorsement of the Agrarians’ vision:

    This passage points us to footnote 12 for the chapter for a list of its sources, which – again – purportedly link Buchanan to this literary group in ways that reflect all the aforementioned claims and charges. Except that’s not what the reader actually finds in footnote 12, or any of its neighboring notes on the Agrarians…

    Along with the citations to a couple Agrarian tracts, what we find instead is a fairly boilerplate list of secondary literature on 20th century racism and its links to the Agrarians. The only reference to Buchanan at all is not an archival source but rather a citation to page 126 of his autobiography, Better than Plowing. Not recalling any passages that would support what MacLean claims here about the Agrarians, I turned to Buchanan’s autobiography to check the reference. The page appears below and consists of a single passing reference to the Southern Agrarians having been influenced by Thomas Jefferson’s famous concept of the yeoman farmer.

    That’s it. There are no references to Donald Davidson. No segregationist visions, or pining over the Confederacy. No claims about wanting to study with the Agrarians at Vanderbilt. No intellectual nods to them at all, aside from a brief factual statement that they espoused a well known Jeffersonian argument about the agricultural lifestyle.

    MacLean’s book has already caught some flak for factual misrepresentations of her sources. In this case she appears to have simply made up an inflammatory association and tacked it onto Buchanan in an effort to paint him as a racist. When scrutinized though in her own sources, it becomes quickly apparent that she has no actual evidence to sustain her many detailed and specific claims. When one actually searches for the link and checks her sources, it quickly becomes apparent that there is none. In fact, one could legitimately note that there are more references to the pro-segregation Vanderbilt Agrarians on Nancy MacLean’s own CV than in the entire Collected Works of James M. Buchanan.

    On Tariffs and the American Civil War

    Posted By on May 26, 2017

    A new piece that I wrote on the role of tariffs in the American Civil War era is now available at the Essential Civil War Curriculum, hosted by Virginia Tech. This article is an encyclopedia-style overview of my research on the subject as well as what other scholars have written, but it provides a short primer on a subject that is often muddled in confusion and erroneous claims.

    If you ever encounter the argument that “tariffs caused the Civil War,” I’d simply urge to you read this piece first to see why the line of reasoning behind that claim is both in error and representative of a false “Lost Cause” historiography that came out of the Reconstruction era. At the same time though, I detail the history of the tariff issue’s role in antebellum economic debates and show how this culminated in an ancillary controversy, after slavery, on the eve of the Civil War.

    Philanthropy and the Great Depression: what historical tax records tell us about charity

    Posted By on May 19, 2017

    As part of my ongoing investigation into early 20th century tax policy, I recently compiled a data series to track patterns in charitable giving during the 1920s and 1930s. As a result of tax code changes in 1917, the IRS began allowing federal income tax payers to deduct up to 15% of their taxable income for donations to recognized philanthropic causes. Eligible donations included charities for the poor, as well as certain contributions to the arts, scientific study, and education. The policy was intended to incentivize private giving and its successor program persists to the present day in the form of tax deductible donations to eligible non-profit organizations.

    The IRS required tax filers to report their charitable deductions on their tax forms and tabulated the total amounts in their annual report on the income tax system. Surprisingly, little work has been done with the resulting data series on annual charitable contributions in this period.

    The chart above illustrates the total amount (inflation-adjusted) of charitable contributions in the period between the implementation of the deductions policy and the eve of World War II. Several patterns are noticeable. First, the Great Depression caused a precipitous decline in charitable giving that persisted into the late 1930s. While this effect is partially attributable to the economic decline caused by the Depression, its persistence also attests to the documented ‘crowding out’ effect that New Deal era spending had upon private charities. Earlier work by Jonathan Gruber and Daniel Hungerman noticed a similar drop-off in church-based charitable giving during the New Deal era, as the federal government picked up the tab for Depression-relief programs.

    Further evidence of this phenomenon may be seen in the raw IRS figures showing where charitable deductions came from. The chart below depicts earners in the $1 million+ income tax bracket, extended through the middle of World War II. Notice several patterns. A sharp spike in charitable giving followed the introduction of charitable giving exemptions, indicating the incentive structure worked. Giving among the wealthiest Americans also spiked dramatically after the 1924 tax cut, reducing high World War I-era rates to a top marginal rate of 25%. Charitable giving among the wealthy dropped off though during the New Deal, and especially following another income tax hike enacted by Herbert Hoover in 1932. It never really recovered until some point after World War II.

    Now compare this second chart to the first, depicting overall charitable giving. While donations by the wealthy are evident in the mid 1920s on this chart as well, something else is missing. The total amount of deductions actually began to accelerate around 1939-1940 in the first chart. This acceleration occurred even though deduction patterns for the wealthiest earners remained essentially flat during the same years. 

    What explains this somewhat counter-intuitive pattern? The answer may be seen in the next chart, showing raw charitable deduction amounts claimed by lower level income earners – specifically tax brackets for incomes between $5,000 and $10,000 per year (note: an almost identical pattern appears for earners in tax brackets below the $5,000 mark, although IRS records did not report these brackets individually in most years – only in cumulative).

    As we can see in this chart, donations from the bottom of the income ladder actually drove the spike in charitable giving in the early 1940s. The reason has to do with yet another set of changes to the federal tax code. Beginning on the eve of the war and continuing until 1945, Congress rapidly expanded the federal tax base onto lower income earners and simultaneously increased income tax enforcement to control for tax evaders. This was done in part to finance the war, though it also involved major administrative reforms such as the addition of automatic payroll withholding in 1943 to increase tax compliance. Faced with a newfound tax burden, lower income individuals began taking advantage of the same charitable deduction allowance that the wealthy utilized to alleviate their own tax burdens in the 1920s.